A Tribute to Joni Mitchell
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2007, Volume 14, #6
Written by John Metzger
Mon June 11, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Long overdue, Nonesuchís A Tribute to Joni Mitchell may be the first noteworthy collection to honor the Canadian songstress, and while it likely wonít be the last, it certainly will be the weirdest. Wisely, the many performers who have lent their considerable talents to concocting the outing largely avoided Joni Mitchellís better known material. Featuring a hodgepodge of indie rock acts, jazz artists, and adult contemporary stars, the set speaks to the wide reach of Mitchellís influence. Paying homage to her work, however, proves to be more difficult than it ought to be. On paper, A Tribute to Joni Mitchell looks as if it will succeed brilliantly, but over the course of its 12 tracks, the endeavor unfortunately never manages to find the heart and soul of her songs.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that A Tribute to Joni Mitchell took a decade to complete, but rather than commission new works to finish the task, several tracks were culled instead from other projects. The result sounds as piecemeal as one might expect, and in an attempt to mask its deficiencies, the collection was organized by placing the more experimental interpretations of Mitchellís material in the setís opening half. Consequently, as it progresses, the outing becomes increasingly conservative.
The bigger issue that plagues A Tribute to Joni Mitchell, however, lies with the performances. For starters, almost all of the men participating in the project failed to connect with the songs that they opted to cover. Despite the myriad of jazz-oriented inflections that lurk within Mitchellís compositions, pianist Brad Mehldau surprisingly falls flat in his attempt to reinterpret Donít Interrupt the Sorrow because he essentially took something that was pensively cerebral and turned it into something interminably stuffy. Sufjan Stevens swapped flutes for trumpets on Free Man in Paris, but his spirited take on the tune is too busy for its own good. Elsewhere, Princeís gospel-soul remake of A Case of You and Elvis Costelloís ambient rendition of Edith and the Kingpin hold promise, but midstream, they lose their way by becoming too academic ó or, in Princeís case, by jettisoning most of the lyrics. On the other hand, James Taylor finds nothing new to reveal about River. Faring better is Caetano Veloso, who lends a Brazilian flair to Dreamlandís percussive undercurrent. Sometimes, the simplest solution is the best one to employ.
Then again, sometimes it isnít. On Blue and Help Me, respectively, k.d. lang, and Sarah McLachlan demonstrate how well they can mimic Mitchellís vocal style, but the arrangements that they employed arenít terribly interesting. Almost to a fault, Emmylou Harris allowed The Magdalene Laundries to stand on its own, while Annie Lennox completely lost sight of Ladies of the Canyonís organic charm.
There are, however, two tracks on A Tribute to Joni Mitchell that make it a worthwhile endeavor, and they succeed for very different reasons. Bjorkís interpretation of The Boho Dance is distinctive, disorienting, and eerie. By contrast, Cassandra Wilson delivers the collectionís purest moment by applying her smoky, textured voice to For the Roses in a manner that conjures the spirit of Nina Simone. With a little luck, these tracks will help to introduce Mitchellís work to a wider audience, but for the most part, A Tribute to Joni Mitchell is frustratingly ineffective. As challenging as some of her work has been, she deserves to be honored in a better fashion than this. Ĺ
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box