Monday, August 06, 2007

The Unbearable Lightness of Covers

Record Review
A Tribute to Joni Mitchell

Tribute records are undoubtedly hard to do. The last one I remember really liking was Encomium, the tribute to Led Zeppelin that came out in the mid-90's. As a matter of fact, that is the only tribute record that I remember being of any significance at all. Last year's tribute to The Band had some good tracks on it, like Death Cab's interesting take on "Rocking Chair" and My Morning Jacket's scorching version of "It Makes No Difference." Typically, however, the only good songs on tributes come from bands that share a certain philosophy or mindset with the band being covered.

Encomium was different, though, and I think it's because nearly everyone who thinks about music a lot has had a significant relationship with Led Zeppelin in their lives. Everyone goes through a period when they listen to little else but Led Zeppelin. Chuck Klosterman has some interesting theories about this, not all of which I agree with, but I think there's a lot of truth in the fact that Zeppelin is, in a certain way, more ubiquitous than both The Beatles and The Stones, the two bands that most often come out above them on lists of the best rock bands of all time. People's relationships with those bands are just different.

I was very interested to see what folks would do with Joni Mitchell's distinctive catalogue. As always with these records, there are some good and some bad. Mostly bad. People's relationships with Joni Mitchell range all over the map, and so the record seems a bit scattered. Everyone relates to Joni Mitchell differently, but I think everyone relates to Zeppelin in roughly the same way. This leads me to believe that there may never be another tribute album as good as Encomium. At least until someone puts together a Creedence tribute (and if they don't make reference to the flying spoon in the title of that one, I am going to be very upset).

Track by track, here's the album broken down.

1. Sufjan Stevens - Free Man in Paris
Yup, that's Sufjan Stevens. Next.

2. Bjork - The Boho Dance
An absolutely perfect match. Joni's esoteric lyrics are a perfect match for Bjork's interesting phrasing and enchanting voice. Honestly, I could listen to Bjork read the phone book and be enthralled.

3. Caetano Veloso - Dreamland
This one makes a lot of sense. It's not particularly exciting, but it's nice to listen to. Joni's talent for making observation of everyday life seem not trite was formidable, and the fluid style of most Carribean music is a great match for this type of song.

4. Brad Mehldau - Don't Interrupt the Sorrow
I love anything Brad Mehldau does, but this was not among Joni Mitchell's best songs. As always, there is lots of interesting melodic play in what Mehldau does with the song, but it is far from his best work.

5. Cassandra Wilson - For the Roses
Cassandra Wilson bores the crap out of me. This is no exception.

6. Prince - A Case of You
God, I wanted to love this. I really did. I absolutely adore Prince, and I absolutely adore this song. But it just doesn't work that well as a soul song. It comes across as easy listening pap. Damn it, Prince! Why do you torture me so?

7. Sarah McLachlan - Blue
Given that she hasn't made a good album in ten years now, I don't pay much attention to Sarah McLachlan any more. But this is a decent version of a song that Joni really did etch her signature on. Usually covers of an artist's signature songs fall flat on their faces, but this one only falls on its ass.

8. Annie Lennox - Ladies of the Canyon
Wow! I forgot how wonderful Annie Lennox's voice can be. This is definitely one of the highlights of this disc. She delivers a confident, fluid performance of a song that is perfect for her. Very, very good.

9. Emmylou Harris - Magdalene Laundries
The other indisputable highlight of this record. Emmylou has such a gift for interpreting other people's songs, and her voice is absolutely a national treasure. This is what you hope for with tribute records.

10. Elvis Costello - Edith and the Kingpin
Jazzy rendition of a pretty jazzy original. This is one of those Joni Mitchell songs that jazz musicians love to cover. But Elvis Costello is not a jazz musician, nor should he be. I would have much rather heard a rocking version of "People's Parties" or "Coyote" from Mr. Costello.

11. k.d. lang - Help Me
Standard version of a standard tune. Her voice is strong enough to make it listenable. Not much else to say.

12. James Taylor - River

I came away from this album thinking that Joni Mitchell is an incredibly hard artist to cover. Her phrasing, her lyrics, her breezy guitar style, and her charisma as a performer all blended together to make her the type of artist that she was. Few artists had all of that in one package. The album offers little insight into the songs, but it makes for some enjoyable listening on a rainy afternoon.


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