It’s the morning after Thanksgiving and I’m laying on a plush carpet at Lake Winola, my favorite place in the world. There’s a light dusting of snow outside and eastern ripples on the water. Uncle Joe and I have been up for hours, picking different albums to play loud through the house: Elvis Costello and the Roots, Levon Helms, Van Morrison…but the best thing we’ve played all day is Miles of Aisles, a live album by Joni Mitchell. As the wind picks up and a squall of snow escapes the long needle pines, her beautiful singing puts voice to winter’s lightest touches. It’s the opening number, “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio”.
Forgive all the nature talk, Joni’s voice brings it out of me. Her falsetto isn’t just airy; it’s actual air—like a whistle escaping the throat, light and lilting and mellifluous, finding the crystalline pitches between birdsong and flute. And though some of the magic has worn away over years of cigarette smoking, she was in peak form when this performance was captured in 1974. Her vocal harmonies in particular are completely inimitable, stacked like a sung horn section in a way that set the stage for modern troubadours like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
She’s singing a tune that does her justice as well. “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” was Joni’s first hit single and propelled her into the national spotlight. (This was a year after she released her landmark album Blue, which got almost universally panned as a simple “break-up album” in one of music history’s biggest fuck-ups.) “You Turn Me On…” is a classic ‘response’ song, written sarcastically because her record label told her she needed a hit. It’s a beautiful story-song that doesn’t really have a standard chorus and still manages to not meander around too much. The only repeating stanza is a conditional about “driving through town with a dark cloud above you”, and though she isn’t singing about the winter, you can fill the stillness in your bones.
Play this song: While bringing fresh pinewood in for the fire, just before the snow starts to stick to your bare hands and jacket.