2002: Nonesuch 79817-2
Id coveted this baby for a couple of years but couldnt quite justify the expense (around US$35) as it seemed (in advance) to be some strange cross between her Hits/Misses Best Of albums and her previous work, the lushly orchestrated Both Sides Now, almost a continuation of the latter actually. And it is but the material this time is all her own, from throughout her life, and right off the bat its arresting to say the least.
Four of these songs are from Wild Things Run Fast, the only one of Jonis studio albums after Blue I dont have in my collection: oh, Ive heard it, I even have a copy on cassette deep in a box full of tapes, but every time Ive considered buying the CD, just to complete the collection as it were, Ive consistently judged it too weak to stand alone or even among its brethren. So hearing these versions of songs I found weak is absolutely fascinating. You Dream Flat Tires certainly gets a spicier grip going here than on its original album!
Love (I Corinthians 13) is one I didnt think Id heard before, and in this one rare case I was feeling grateful to have heard this version first and then I discovered its original version was the closing track on Wild Things Run Fast. I guess by the end of that album I was so turned off by the productionall reverb, synths, and schmoozy sax/guitar work that made her vocal deliveries sound like unhappy and weary just-one-more-take-please-Joni runthroughsthat even the lyrics didnt touch me. For that matter, theres nothing like hearing a commentary on love from a worn and slightly guarded or resigned voice that has obviously looked at life from both sides now to put it mildly, and this version is very much the latter and makes her 1982 voice sound almost naïve. Furthermore, Love here is commandingly beautiful and moving. Joni imparts such personal weight to every phrase here that I actually got off my buttoxes and got down my copy of The New English Bible to compare translations and THEN reviewed the French translation I have of that scripture. It takes something this good to make me do that, even being a philologist.
Woodstock is cinematic yet intimate, an at-first-unrecognizable reworking, but for all its grand sweep of heights and depths it still cant knock the Crosby Stills Nash & Young version off the top perch where its been shining gloriously since 1970. Slouching Toward Bethlehem, on the other hand, I thought couldnt unseat its original version for earnestness; maybe it doesnt, by that definition, but it certainly wins the contest for its sense of impending chaos and anarchy a startling orchestration that ranges across many styles of musical dramaYOW!!!
I still cant get into Judgement of the Moon and Stars, but she gives it a mighty drama here and on a gigantic-sounding canvas, so at least its more demanding to consider than the original was. This is one I know will drive me to contrast both versions many times and delve further into its origins. Similarly, The Sire of Sorrow is far more compelling this way than in its first round, which verged on pedantic and pious; the dramas much more drastic here, albeit still not perfect (the mens choir moves me not), and again the orchestration is amazingly expressive.
Be Cool was just about right in its first incarnation on Wild Things Run Fast, so this version seems to me to be a replaying of it in Sharks-versus-Jets mode; both versions are very pleasantly attitudinal. I definitely prefer the original version of Just Like This Train, as Court and Sparks songs were perfect on that album, but its interesting to reconsider the song from this slower-paced perspective.
I didnt care for Sex Kills as it debuted on Turbulent Indigo, but then that whole album was so festeringly dark and pessimistic (somewhere between nihilistic and apocalyptic) that none of its tracks emerged without a doom-laden shell; here the sentimentsa mix of frantic despairing hopelessness and bitterness (there must be a word for the former, but I honestly cant think of it) are not lessened, but rather intensified, dramatized, and turned from grievances into weapons with the lethal sharpness of a horrifying black-and-white photograph of atrocity. Instead of its tone being oh, this is terrible, how has it come to this, with wringing of hands and the feeling that the gloomy seer is retreating in despair to an ivory tower while the world continues its bloody machinations, this version jumps directly into the maelstrom and describes the slaughter from the first beat. Its grandly presented tragedy like a symphonic Delacroix tableau, but without hope; and through most of the song Mitchell sings the title phrase as a frank comment, a metaphor, devoid of greater meaning, but as the darkness redoubles and the sense of tragedy and doom mounts, the line sex kills becomes a testimony of how twisted things have become, that something as beautiful and rejoiceful as sex is now not just a weapon but an act of murder. The orchestration here is as explosive and vastly extreme as that Delacroix scene demands, maybe more so, and in any case its aweingly mighty.
Her revisiting of Refuge of the Roads is slow and touching but has a long way to go in shaking me of the originals perfect impressions and the delicate textual adjustments of this version intrigue me but still dont change things. This track was beautiful not only on its own but as Hejiras close, and I still hold it up as that. (And anyway her melodic revisions detract from the concise expression of the original.) Although the orchestration of this version is mighty (and worthy of its lyrical reference at the clouds of Michaelangelo lines), Jonis delivery verges on peevish or stingy, to me, which believe me confounds me.
Hejira hmm . I had thought it perfectly succinct in its original version, and this one seems unnecessarily cluttered, but I do appreciate the reconsideration. Chinese Café/Unchained Melody didnt move me at all in its first form and only touches me as heavy pathos this time around, Im afraid, all mournful regret and commiseration of terribly maudlin oldness; the pause here at God speed your love to me however does grip me and force me to recast my perspective of whats expressed, as it involves past, present, and future .
I dont think Cherokee Louise needs revisiting, although to hear it stripped of its distracting multitracked backing vocals it really does command new sympathy and seriousness. The Dawntreader nearly predates me, not just in terms of my awareness of Jonis catalogthe original was recorded a couple of years after I was bornso I dont really have anything to comment on that one but its followed by Blues unforgettable closing mood-piece The Last Time I Saw Richard. It takes on a certain chilling secondary cast here, but the original is more immediate. This is just a distant retrospective glance at the first expressions uncertain certainty.
Like Sex Kills, Borderline was for me one of Turbulent Indigos many depressively fatalistic moments. This revisiting of it at least replaces the originals shrill contempt with some compassionate sorrow, but even so its hardly an engaging or even encouraging lyric. In other words, even though it gets lush strings here, Borderline still alienates me.
The final track? Always a critically important choice and so hard to choose regardless of the artist or the breadth of their body of work. The Circle Game certainly gets a new treatment here: the song dates from 1970s Ladies of the Canyon but is now over 30 years old, and this version grimly acknowledges how the celebration of beautiful innocence of the original contrasts with (but must face) the grey and discouraging realities of the present day and what comes next. Not an uplifting note to end the album on, on its own, but then the songs messages do gently remind us that things are in flux, that the Wheel of Fortune is still very much in motion regardless of our awareness of it .
If I had a general criticism about this albumand I hasten to say that criticism is NOT what my websites commentaries are about, I write to celebrateit would be that the orchestrations are at times quite over-the-top and in a sense distract from Jonis singing; then again, maybe that was intentional not to distract, exactly, but to put her inextricably integral vocals as singer-songwriter into a more dramatic and broader setting than is usually the case. And its not as though her deliveries are reduced to an elementally small fragment in this arrangement: she certainly roars and snaps (as on Slouching Towards Bethlehem) as much as she broods and whispers (as on The Last Time I Saw Richard, although her little waitress imitation there is a left-field zinger that reminds us that shes very much in control of what youre hearing presented). The overall effect is intensely moving, although individual tracks demand very different specific reactions. Im profoundly impressed and thankful that shes created this album.
I do wonder how this sounds to sympathetic ears that dont already know the original versions of these songs; Ive lived with nearly all of her songs for so many years that theyre like part of my skin, like whatever the positive equivalent of a scar would be, I guess . Thats why I was surprised when a coworker who sings recently remarked that she found Jonis songs vocally challenging: for me singing them is technically effortless, its controlling the emotions and nuances thats harder I do always delight in them.
Comments © 2005 Mark Ellis Walker, except as noted, and no claim is made to the images and quoted lyrics.