A Tribute to Joni Mitchell

2007: Nonesuch 122620-2

  1. Free Man in Paris

    Sufjan Stevens

  2. The Boho Dance


  3. Dreamland

    Caetano Veloso

  4. Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow

    Brad Mahldau

  5. For the Roses

    Cassandra Wilson

  6. A Case of You


  7. Blue

    Sarah McLachlan

  8. Ladies of the Canyon

    Annie Lennox

  9. The Magdalene Laundries

    Emmylou Harris

  10. Edith and the Kingpin

    Elvis Costello

  11. Help Me

    k.d. lang

  12. River

    James Taylor

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 Estrella’s name, but to do so would seem so peevish considering the gorgeous context it happens in.

Björk’s recording of “The Boho Dance” is just that, Björk singing that song, not much Joni in play, but I don’t hate it as some people do…it just doesn’t help that she doesn’t seem to know what the song’s about, at times, and of course her rather random breaks for breath don’t help her to sound convincing.

Veloso’s rendition of “Dreamland” is neither here nor there, to me; the same is true of Mahldau’s piano version of “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” a song I’m 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, “that’s nice,” hardly moving. Mahldau’s cover is more challenging (it took me awhile to recognize what song it was, as I refrained from consulting the CD’s 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 Wilson’s “For the Roses” is the hands-down winner here, but then she’s 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 that’s the difference between her track and Björk’s.

Prince, whom I personally don’t care for in general, nearly provides something lovely with “A Case of You,” but it’s a little too self-absorbed in its representation and consequently loses the thread of the song itself.

I can’t think of a thing to say against Sarah McLachlan’s cover of “Blue,” which is very much a McLachlan piece but also a Mitchell song at the same time: as with Wilson’s track, and Emmylou Harris’s, it’s what such a tribute should be.

Lennox’s 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 isn’t the vision Mitchell presented so much as a magical ultra-world scene; one reason I love it is that it made me truly hear Mitchell’s lyrics anew, especially phrases such as “songs like tiny hammers hurled at bevelled mirrors in empty halls.” Emmylou Harris’s rendition of “The Magdalene Laundry” did that for me too, although the song’s hardly a toe-tapping singalong delight; she does make the song more listenable than Joni’s rather tight and maudlin original version.

Elvis Costello’s 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 CD’s release that k.d. lang would be contributing a cover of “Help Me,” I had to laugh because it seemed almost redundant: the song’s lilting melody and style were entirely too easily lang’s territory…still, I was hungry to hear her sing it, and she DID give it some new touches. Ironically, I was somewhat disappointed she didn’t take it further into her own realm, but truly I’m glad that she presented the original song so faithfully and beautifully.

As for “River….” Well, James Taylor’s intro to it sets things off nicely and he certainly doesn’t fuck with Joni’s original song substantially…it’s treated as kinfolk, retold in his family’s accent. Beyond that however it comes down to whether or not you like that James Taylor Sound. I don’t care for it but I don’t hate it either; thus I appreciate this track but I wouldn’t listen to it often. But hey -- gorgeous song, no?

Which brings me to the most important thing about this whole album: these are Joni Mitchell’s 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 they’re 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 I’d have to call this Tribute a successful one.