Revinylization #36: The Hissing of the Roses

Photos By Joel Bernstein

My wife saw me putting on my new LP of Joni Mitchell's great For the Roses album and said: "Oh, our breakup album!" Never mind the confusing details—we're obviously still (or again) together—that's how intense the bonds are for many people with Joni's music: We people of a certain age set the clock of our lives by her recordings.

Enough time has passed now in the history of music that succeeding generations can connect with music that was new when their parents or even grandparents were young. This tends to happen with the best of the popular recorded catalog; lesser material fades away sooner, breaking like the waves at Malibu. Sometimes it skips a generation, sometimes not: I did not force my sons to listen to music of the Beatles; they found them on their own.

Rhino's Joni Mitchell Archives Series continues with the release of this boxed set, The Asylum Albums (1972–1975) (Rhino R1 680935, 5 LPs, 2022). Mitchell and Elliot Roberts, her late manager (to whom this box is dedicated), intended this chronological series to contain "studio albums from a specific era, followed by an official Archives release looking at unreleased audio from the same time period."

The first Joni release on Asylum was For the Roses in 1972 (Asylum R1 5057), followed by Court and Spark (Asylum RR1 1001), Joni's most commercially successful album, in 1974. Then came her first live album, Miles of Aisles (R1 202), released as a double LP later in 1974. The Hissing of Summer Lawns (RR1 1051) followed in 1975. All four were engineered by Henry Lewy and, other than For the Roses, they—the original releases—were mastered for vinyl by Bernie Grundman. Grundman has now remastered those same titles for LP—what a career!


I wasn't in an actual asylum when these records were released; I was in college, so, close enough. My friends and I lived and breathed this music; it is fine now to hear them refreshed and sounding so good.

Across this set, it is easy to hear and enjoy the evolution of Joni's songwriting and its musical execution. Already, changes are underway on Joni's first Asylum album, For the Roses, where Tom Scott's wind playing and arranging skills first make their appearance, gently pushing Joni into new musical areas while remaining true to her ability as one of the great singer-songwriters of her generation. Standout tracks that show this new palette include "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," with delicate little punches from flutes and other winds, and "Barangrill," with more assertive saxophones and a fuller band. The album still features Joni accompanying herself with solo piano and guitar, but the arrangements ebb and flow. There's quite a bit of variety of instrumental timbre—a nice addition to core Joni. The fine remastering enhances listening pleasure.


Court and Spark was the game changer. Joni self-produced, collaborating now with Tom Scott and his band the L.A. Express and a stable of leading Los Angeles studio musicians including Joe Sample and Larry Carlton from The Crusaders. The result is a polished studio presentation with a jazzy edge: Listen to the haunting groove on "Trouble Child."

There's a new, optimistic slant to some of Joni's songwriting here, supported by the arrangements, an energy revealed in the drum kickoff of a tune like "Help Me." Joni even boogies a bit with the band, something most people don't associate with her style, as on "Raised on Robbery." Mitchell is a co-founder of the whole "singer-songwriter" identity, and that means what it says: writing the material and singing it yourself. An exception closes out this album: a cover of "Twisted," lyrics by Annie Ross set to an earlier jazz instrumental recording by Wardell Gray.

Upon leaving the studio, Joni took the L.A. Express band on the road, documenting the tour with Miles of Aisles, on which she performs material from the first two Asylum albums as well as from her earlier Reprise Records catalog, including her great 1971 album, Blue. This was the first time Mitchell had toured with a full band, and you can feel the energy.


The following album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, pushes onto new musical turf, mainly due to Joni's first use of synthesizers, giving some of the music a darker edge, echoing the worldly and conflicted lyrics of a woman who has now traveled far from the fields of Saskatchewan where Joni grew up.

Over the course of these four albums, you can hear Mitchell's voice start to change, descending into the lower mezzo-soprano range that characterizes her later work. The bottom line on these recordings, and their playback, is the quality of Joni's vocals. What an instrument! The other crucial element is the sound of Mitchell's guitars. On these new LP remasters, and on the preceding LP remasters of her earlier Reprise albums, the guitars sound great. Joni's use of alternate tunings is sometimes breathtakingly gorgeous: Check out "Woman of Heart and Mind" for example.

Rhino has done it right: a boxed set with the original gatefold packages containing excellent 180gm vinyl. Pressings are flat, with little surface noise and exemplary sound. The only thing added to the original packages is a card with brief notes of appreciation by Neil Young. Comparing my original copies to the new ones, I don't hear a lot of difference; after all, in remastering Grundman, Grundman is not starting from zero! For me, the most problematic aspect of the earlier sound was that of the piano on For the Roses. It almost sounded like it was recorded too hot. It now seems tamed.

Outstanding remastering, essential music.

NeilAK's picture

The albums in this box set and the Reprise years box set are superior pressings to the stand alone Rhino reissues. “Court and Spark” in particular does not seem to suffer from the same crushed dynamics as Rhino’s previous reissue.
“For the Roses” is, I agree, much more open and Mitchell’s piano and guitar exist in a more vibrant and quieter space.
Then there is the news on JM’s website, complete with digital disclaimer that Mobile Fidelity will be issuing Ultra Disc 45 rpm one-step albums from thr Repriseand Asylum periods, starting next year.