Monday, May 07, 2007

A Tribute to Joni Mitchell

Tribute albums are always a slippery slope. If the covers are slavish copies of the original songs there is little point but, that said, if the covers are so different as to be unrecognizable hardcore fans of the artist being feted will likely be put off (and, as a matter of course, some hardcore fans are going to be put off no matter what.) Finding an entertaining and illuminating middle ground…coming at the music with a fresh but respectful vision…is something artists participating in tributes struggle to achieve.

This tribute problem is heightened when the honoree is a singular, distinctive talent like Joni Mitchell. A Tribute to Joni Mitchell…featuring an eclectic and interesting assemblage of pop artists…is all over the place when it comes to trying to surmount the aforementioned slope.

I have, as I have doubtlessly said before in this space, a strange fascination for tribute albums and combining that with my abiding respect and affection for Joni’s work it was a foregone fact that I was going to be all over this one. Add in the fact that some of my favorite artists…Emmylou Harris, Cassandra Wilson, Prince, Elvis Costello, Bjork, Sufjan Stevens…were involved was sweet icing on the cake.

Stevens kicks off the proceeding by turning “Free Man in Paris into a horn-driven baroque fantasia that gets points just for sheer audacity. The fact that it works…capturing the spirit of Mitchell without aping her version of the song…is a cool bonus. Bjork follows with a spare, aching, vaguely other-worldly take on “Boho Dance” (from Joni’s underappreciated The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which is also the source of “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” presented here as a lovely piano instrumental by Brad Mehldau.)

Caetano Veloso offers a percussion-driven of “Dreamland” (originally from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter) giving it an appealing carnival vibe in the process.

Cassandra Wilson’s husky, sultry, beguiling voice…supported in a superb way by understated guitar, acoustic bass, harmonica, and percussion…smoothly inhabits “For the Roses” and the ever-amazing Emmylou Harris takes a grand, heartfelt tour through the plaintive “The Magdalene Laundries” (from Turbulent Indigo.)

Prince’s abridged version of “A Case of You” has a certain earnest charm (he plays piano, guitar, bass, and organ on the track) while Sarah McLachlan’s voice eerily channels Mitchell’s on her ethereal take on “Blue”.

Annie Lennox’s “Ladies of the Canyon” has underpinnings of sitar, tabla, and santoor giving it a “world music” vibe…but those touches are overwhelmed by the keyboards. Lennox’s voice, of course, stands out over the din.

Recorded back in 1997, Elvis Costello’s version of “Edith and the Kingpin” (again from The Hissing of Summer Lawns)…featuring a horn section (flute, clarinet, trumpet, flugal horn, sax, two French horns) aided and abetted by bass, vibes, and drums…never really catches fire despite a nice vocal.

The disc closes with two covers that deviate only slightly from the originals: k.d. lang’s “Help Me” (lang’s vocal is, of course, lovely) and James Taylor’s “River” (from his Christmas album…it’s fine but not distinctive enough to merit repeated listenings.)

As these things go, A Tribute to Joni Mitchell, has more hits than misses and if it leads fans of the artists involved to go discover the original Joni tracks and albums then it’s all good by me.

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