Various Artists

A Tribute to Joni Mitchell

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Joni Mitchell covers dot the musical landscape the way Tim Hortons doughnut shacks line the highways of Ontario. It's a little surprising, then, that the first Mitchell tribute album to be released on a major U.S. label didn't emerge until 2007, which was coincidentally the same year Mitchell was scheduled to release Shine, her first studio effort to appear in some ten years. And as far as tribute albums go, A Tribute to Joni Mitchell isn't half bad. The compilation is split up between songs that were recorded specifically for the tribute album, such as Sufjan Stevens' "A Free Man in Paris," and those that were recorded and released previously, such as James Taylor's "River." The tracks that were recorded specifically for A Tribute are far and away the best. Stevens approaches "A Free Man in Paris" with his characteristic, and fitting, over-the-top irony and band geek sensibilities. Opening with a brass fanfare, the kind that wouldn't be out of place in the opening credits of a network news show, Stevens' cover tackles the original with an appropriate sense of theatricality and fun. Björk's lilting cover of "Boho Dance," lush with synthesized bells and whorls, arguably rivals the original. She does a very good job of allowing Mitchell's lyics to unfurl, even while she twists and transforms the song, fairy godmother-style, into something otherworldly. And Caetano Veloso's rendition of "Dreamland" is simply a revelation. It's not a huge stretch from the original, but Veloso's light, gentle vocals, augmented by the the warm, loose Brazilian instrumentation, somehow manages to grab Mitchell's narrative and bring it to life. Mitchell is a storyteller, and the best tracks on here are those that welcome and explore her narratives. The worst ignore or misinterpret them. Prince pays little attention to Mitchell's lyrics on "A Case of You," slashing the first two verses in order to cut right to the chase. This abridged version has a lot of soul, but it does little to pay tribute to Mitchell's original; Prince cut out the pathos and made the song sappy. To be fair, Mitchell's a difficult person to pay tribute to, let alone cover, seeing how she's one of those rare singer/songwriters whose abilities as a performer are equal to her compositions. This stands in stark contrast to someone like Bob Dylan, whose songs were often just as, if not more, enjoyable in their Jimi Hendrix or Joan Baez incarnations. But while she's ultimately the best performer of her own work, Mitchell, with her warbly soprano and idiosyncratic sense of composition, hasn't always lent herself to the unaccustomed ear. A Tribute to Joni Mitchell is thus a great listen for those who'd like to ease into the breadth and range of Mitchell's work by way of established, accessible artists like Prince, Sarah McLachlan and Taylor. Granted, fans will probably find themselves yearning for the original material after listening to this disc, but this is only another way in which A Tribute succeeds. These interpretations, imperfect as they can be, provide new vantage points from which Mitchell's original albums can be located, analyzed, and appreciated.

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