A Tribute to Joni Mitchell
2007: Nonesuch 122620-2
Would it have killed Sufjan Stevens to learn how to pronounce Champs Élysées correctly for something like this? Then again, I suppose one could ask the same question regarding Annie Lennox and her pronunciation of Estrellas name, but to do so would seem so peevish considering the gorgeous context it happens in.
Björks recording of The Boho Dance is just that, Björk singing that song, not much Joni in play, but I dont hate it as some people do it just doesnt help that she doesnt seem to know what the songs about, at times, and of course her rather random breaks for breath dont help her to sound convincing.
Velosos rendition of Dreamland is neither here nor there, to me; the same is true of Mahldaus piano version of Dont Interrupt the Sorrow, a song Im rather fond of. In the case of Dreamland, which loses its punch when not delivered by its singer/writer and her relevance, the track is, well, thats nice, hardly moving. Mahldaus cover is more challenging (it took me awhile to recognize what song it was, as I refrained from consulting the CDs tracklist for my first listening) and demonstrates how such a song is better suited to note-gliding instruments such as guitar and voice for the nudges and insinuations Mitchell wove into this beaut.
Cassandra Wilsons For the Roses is the hands-down winner here, but then shes demonstrated before this that she can give us Joni from her own heart and leave us reeling with awe; Wilson sings Mitchell, not Wilson, and thats the difference between her track and Björks.
Prince, whom I personally dont care for in general, nearly provides something lovely with A Case of You, but its a little too self-absorbed in its representation and consequently loses the thread of the song itself.
I cant think of a thing to say against Sarah McLachlans cover of Blue, which is very much a McLachlan piece but also a Mitchell song at the same time: as with Wilsons track, and Emmylou Harriss, its what such a tribute should be.
Lennoxs rendition of Ladies of the Canyon is the most joyous and sonically rich on the album, and I truly love it, but what it evokes isnt the vision Mitchell presented so much as a magical ultra-world scene; one reason I love it is that it made me truly hear Mitchells lyrics anew, especially phrases such as songs like tiny hammers hurled at bevelled mirrors in empty halls. Emmylou Harriss rendition of The Magdalene Laundry did that for me too, although the songs hardly a toe-tapping singalong delight; she does make the song more listenable than Jonis rather tight and maudlin original version.
Elvis Costellos take on Edith and the Kingpin may go on about two hours too long, and too heavily, but at least he gives you time to think about the lyrics, which are famously sumptious. Unfortunately its pace is so funereal (and so attentive to orchestrative detail) that it loses much of its potential impact, whereas the original is more of a breezy pastiche that flits from image to image with fine editorial cutting as if it were in fact a video.
When I saw ahead of the CDs release that k.d. lang would be contributing a cover of Help Me, I had to laugh because it seemed almost redundant: the songs lilting melody and style were entirely too easily langs territory still, I was hungry to hear her sing it, and she DID give it some new touches. Ironically, I was somewhat disappointed she didnt take it further into her own realm, but truly Im glad that she presented the original song so faithfully and beautifully.
As for River . Well, James Taylors intro to it sets things off nicely and he certainly doesnt fuck with Jonis original song substantially its treated as kinfolk, retold in his familys accent. Beyond that however it comes down to whether or not you like that James Taylor Sound. I dont care for it but I dont hate it either; thus I appreciate this track but I wouldnt listen to it often. But hey -- gorgeous song, no?
Which brings me to the most important thing about this whole album: these are Joni Mitchells songs, and that woman has been creating such beauties for five decades now. That all of these top-rank artists have the urge to present her songs anew, honoring the original versions in the process, makes almost negligible the fact that theyre quite capable of doing so and are great musicians/songwriters themselves. Every one of these tracks sends me back to its original version to relive it and compare impressions, but the songs only grow in their beauty as a result. So I guess Id have to call this Tribute a successful one.
Comments © 2009 Mark Ellis Walker, except as noted, and no claim is made to the images and quoted lyrics.